Assessing Thomson’s Defense of Abortion

FoetusDoes the personhood of foetuses give them right to life? Does that right to life overrides women’s rights to control what happens in and to their bodies?

In A Defense of Abortion Judith Jarvis Thomson argued that even if we grant that foetuses are persons and thus have right to life, it does not follow that they have the right to use the pregnant women’s bodies. Thomson’s case from the famous unconscious violinist analogy unfolds as follows:

Imagine you wake up in the morning kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers, and are plugged into a famous unconscious violinist who has a fatal kidney ailment. “To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you”(Thomson 1971, 49)

Thomson argued that even if the violinist is a person and has right to life, it does not follow that he has right to use your body, if we grant that a person can decide what happen in and to her body. It would be very nice of you to allow it, but it is morally acceptable to unplug yourself (1971, 48-49).

In both cases, killing the violinist and aborting a foetus, according to Thomson, are relevantly analogous actions because your body is being violated. If it is morally permissible to kill the violinist because your body is being violated, then it is morally permissible to abort a foetus because your body is being violated.

Exploring The Extent of Thomson’s Violinist Analogy

Mary Anne Warren pointed out that Thomson’s argument from the violinist analogy is plausible as a defense for permissibility of morally unaccountable unwanted pregnancy only, e.g. rape (Warren 1973). She argued that “[t]he crucial difference between a pregnancy due to rape and the normal case of an unwanted pregnancy is that in the normal case we cannot claim that the woman is in no way responsible for her predicament; she could have remained chaste, or taken her pills more faithfully, or abstained on dangerous days, and so on.”(1973, 49)

In morally accountable cases, the foetus, congruently argued Bonnie Steinbock, “does have a right to use the pregnant woman’s body because she is (partly) responsible for its existence.”(Steinbock 1992, 78)1

David Boonin-Vail (1997) and Peter Singer (2011) disagreed with Warren and Steinbock. If Thomson’s argument from the violinist analogy is sound, then it could be, they argued, extended beyond morally unaccountable cases.

Boonin argued that there is a difference between “a person’s (a) voluntarily bring about a state of affairs S and (b) voluntarily doing an action A foreseeing that this may lead to a state of affairs S.”(1997, 291) Moral accountability for one’s action is plausible in only (a) but not (b). Non-rape unwanted pregnancy cases falls in (b). He explained that being morally responsible does not necessarily mean a person also agrees to a foreseeable consequence.

Boonin offered an analogy; Bill and Ted voluntarily placing some money on the restaurant’s table. Demonstrating (a) is Bill who after finishing eating voluntarily took the money out of his wallet and placed it on the table and walked out the door. On the other hand, (b) is Ted who voluntarily took the money out of his wallet while eating because it was uncomfortable sitting with it in his pocket. He not only consciously knew that he may forget his money on the table but was also warned by a friend. He unwisely refused to listen to the advice. Ted after finishing eating carelessly left the money on the table, walked out the door, and about ten minutes after returned to collect his money (293). Though Ted is morally responsible for leaving his money on the table, it does not follow that he agreed with the foreseeable consequence of the waiter taking his money.  Following Boonin, women’s voluntary intercourse with men is more like Ted’s case.

Singer offered a different analogy:

Suppose that you found yourself connected to the violinist, not because you were kidnapped by music lovers, but because you had intended to enter the hospital to visit a sick friend; and when you got into the elevator, you carelessly pressed the wrong button and ended up in a section of the hospital normally visited only by those who have volunteered to be connected to patients who would not otherwise survive. A team of doctors, waiting for the next volunteer, assumed you were it, jabbed you with an anesthetic and connected you. If Thomson’s argument was sound in the kidnap case, it is probably sound here too, because nine months unwillingly supporting another is a high price to pay for ignorance or carelessness. (2011, 133)

Boonin’s analogy fails because moral accountability in view here is not of voluntarily placing of some money on the restaurant’s table but voluntarily leaving of the money on the table. Ted, unlike Bill, did not leave the money voluntarily. Similarly Singer’s analogy fails because it is not a voluntary carelessly pressed wrong-button action, of say Gill, which is parallel with Ted placing his money on the table, that is in view. Gill, as in the case of rape, found himself involuntarily plugged to the violinist.

Questioning the Thomson’s Violinist Analogy

Thomson’s analogy fails because in a typical case of abortion we are not merely failing to save another person’s life, by unplugging ourselves, but we are actively taking away another person’s life.

If Jeff McMahan is correct that “[t]he standard methods for performing abortions clearly involve killing the fetus: the fetus dies by being mangled or poisoned in the process of being removed from the uterus” (2002, 378) then abortion is not simply unplugging oneself from another person and letting her die but actively and intentionally killing her. The kidney donor is not only unplugging herself and passively letting a dying violinist die but unplugging herself by actively killing him2.

Questioning Thomson’s Body Rights Assumption

Thomson assumed that our rights to decide what happens in and to our bodies extend to another person. This is not necessarily true. Imagine the following counterexample:

Jane decided to chop off the legs of her foetus, at week 7. Grant that she has the right to choose what happens in and to her body, Dr. John, with help of modern technology, performed the operation and chopped Jane’s foetus legs off. In week 10, Jane decided to chop the hands of her foetus off and John performed what is reasoned to be Jane’s personal choice and right. Taking it to an extreme Jane decided to pluck her foetus’ eyes out, et cetera. Two alternative endings could be that of (i) Jane in her final trimester decided to perform prostaglandin or (ii) Jane decided to give birth to an eyeless-amputated child.

If our moral sentiments, assuming we are not morally blind, toward Jane are that of not only disapproval but also of condemning Jane for her “ruthlessness” then it does not follow that Jane’s right to choose what happen in and to her body is extended to her foetus.

Questioning Thomson’s Use of “Use

Raising a worthy exploring inquiry, Philip W. Bennett asked; “Does the foetus use the body of the woman who has it in the same way that the violinist is using the body of the unwilling kidney donor?”(Bennett 1982,142) Bennett questioned the assumption that he believed Thomson took for granted, namely the relationship between a violinist’s use of the kidney donor with that of a foetus use of the mother.

Using people as means to our own ends, following Kant, is often wrong. Thomson’s violinist, or the Society of Music Lovers, according to Bennett, is, in a moral chastisement sense, using the kidney donor as a means to his or their end. In this way he or they are morally accountable. But the foetus does not uses the body of the woman in a similar way to them because foetus use its mother in a moral neutral sense. (1982, 144)

If Bennett’s distinction is correct, viz., the foetus does not indeed use the body of the pregnant woman as the violinist uses the body of the kidney donor then “the moral sentiments evoked by the violinist case, as codified in the principle that ‘ having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body …,’ have little or nothing to say about the issue of abortion and the implications of the foetus’ right to life if fetuses have such a right.”(142)

By granting, for argument sake, that foetuses are persons, Thomson did not succeed to show that it is morally permissible to actively kill them. Elsewhere3 I argued that what makes killing people generally morally wrong applies also to the killing of foetuses. That case does not assume that foetuses are persons.


Bennett, Philip W. (1982) A Defence of Abortion; A Question for Judith Jarvis Thomson. Philosophical Investigations. Vol 5, Issue 2:142-145

Booni-Vail, David (1997) A Defense of “A Defense of Abortion”: On the Responsibility Objection to Thomson’s Argument. Ethics, Vol. 107, No. 2:286-313

McMahan, Jeff (2002). The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Singer, Peter (2011) Practical Ethics. 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Steinbock, Bonnie (1992) Life before Birth: The Moral and Legal Status of Embryos and Fetuses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis (1971) A Defense of Abortion. Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 1:47-66

Warren, Mary Anne (1973) On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion. The Monist Vol 57, No. 1: 42-61

[1] Alan Donagan (1977), Paul D. Feinberg (1978), Robert N. Wennberg (1985), and Judith A. Boss (1993) offered similar Warren-Steinbock-types of critique.

[2] Hysterotomy and hysterectomy methods are more like unplugging in Thomson’s analogy

18 thoughts on “Assessing Thomson’s Defense of Abortion

  1. Excellent post. Absolutely fabulous. I battle with the abortion controversy myself, it seems that my opinion is based on the mood I’m in, and that’s a problem.

    One thing I think you should’ve talked about more is the fact that the mother chose to create that child. In my book, that sounds like the mother owns that child, and that the child is her full property. That sounds rather dim, but I don’t see how it could be any other way. Of course as a man of scripture, I recognize the child to be the property of God first and foremost, rendering what I just said null. But a secular nation and secular people would think differently. What are your thoughts on that?


    • ”Of course as a man of scripture, I recognize the child to be the property of God first and foremost, rendering what I just said null”

      A completely different argument and one that you would never be able to back unless your god made an appearance and announced such a thing himself. ; so why bother introducing it?

  2. In reading your post Prayson, and the previous comments of others, my first first thought is that how could anyone argue we are not in a constant struggle between right and wrong, or good and evil, for who could argue that a fetus is not alive. Life actually starts at conception. The fetus’ blood supply starts to be made within a week of contraception. Most living things need blood in order to keep living.

    Irrespective of race, religion, sect or language the holy prophets correctly encourage the abstinence of their people from a certain set of vices or evils, and the cultivation of a certain set of virtues. The Holy Bible correctly catalogs the following as deadly sins: Greed, Pride, Anger, Lust, Sloth, Envy and Gluttony.

    Mankind, for discussion purposes, can be classified under three broad groups – the Divinely Good, the Diabolically Fallen and the Incorrigibly Indifferent. The first being spiritually minded, the last two materialistically minded.

    Humility, unpretentious, non-injurious, forgiveness, righteousness, service to one’s God, purity of mind and heart, intelligence, steadfastness and control over one’s senses are some of the elements of Spiritual Knowledge, which include moral qualities and holy practices conducive to spiritual awakening.

    The qualities declared here must be followed at all layers of one’s spiritual life, and at all levels of a person’s interaction with his surroundings. Notable among these is the mention of control over one’s senses and desires.

    This specifically refers to attachment and ego. Living among worldly objects, one must not get shackled by them. Also, if one tries to run away from them, but then indulges in them mentally, one is a hypocrite. If one steadfastly follows the concept of Oneness his/her mind is then open to the spiritual knowledge this world has to offer. When one identifies himself with specific objects or events, when such practice is followed, no matter what knowledge is imparted to him, he cannot practice the absence of anger and the other deadly sins. Consequently such a person suffers moral insult within himself, and falls under the influence of non-divine qualities. To live one’s real divine nature, it is a necessary prerequisite to shed oneself of evils and the consequent anger that occurs within. This is indeed in line with another discourse on the destruction of one’s ignorance within oneself so the soul can rejoice in the presence of the truth within one’s mind.

    Science and technology will not save us from the evils of nations and individuals.

    1. Allowing the pollution or depletion of water resources.
    2. Allowing the inhumane treatment of animals.
    3. Allowing unsafe employment for people.
    4. Classism.
    5. Contributing to Global warming.
    6. Contributing to Ozone depletion and all other environmental villainy not otherwise mentioned here. 7. Contributing to the unfair distribution of the Earth’s resources and therefore creating poverty. 8. Destroying agricultural societies.
    9. Ecological destruction.
    10. Extinction of species of animals and plants.
    11. Ignoring World hunger and starvation.
    12. Invading countries.
    13. Massive deforestation.
    14. Nationalism.
    15. Poor health research, education and care creating obesity, heart disease, cancer, etc.
    16. Promoting sexism and producing a culture in which women are repressed and abused.
    17. Subjugation of native peoples.
    18. War.
    19. Wasting the natural resources and wealth on war and world-wide imperialism.

    • Ah, were it so easy. The problem is not life, but life’s problems and how to approach them. About 40% of early pregnancies fail. Is this a tragedy? Should we be frantically searching for a fix? Many of theses early spontaneous abortions are due to genetic anomalies or luteal phase defects and go unnoticed by the woman, or are only noticeable when the process is complete. How about fetuses with trisomy? Is it their fate to suffer briefly and die? Do we have a duty to intervene, even if, for many of them, we compound their suffering for a period of time prior to their deaths in the name of others who may potentially go on to experience lives? Do we have a duty to terminate all those pregnancies to prevent the suffering of most of the fetuses? If the answer lies in the middle, how do we find the middle? We must at least have the humility to see that the answers are not clear and simple.

      • Less than 5% of abortions are because of possible fetal health problems Keith.


        • Nearly half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and about four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion. Twenty-two percent of all pregnancies (excluding miscarriages) end in abortion.
        • Forty percent of pregnancies among white women, 67% among blacks and 53% among Hispanics are unintended.
        • In 2008, 1.21 million abortions were performed, down from 1.31 million in 2000. However, between 2005 and 2008, the long-term decline in abortions stalled. From 1973 through 2008, nearly 50 million legal abortions occurred.
        • Each year, two percent of women aged 15–44 have an abortion. Half have had at least one previous abortion.
        • At least half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45, and, at current rates, one in 10 women will have an abortion by age 20, one in four by age 30 and three in 10 by age 45.

        Sources and citations at

        I’m saddened by all this needless death. The unborn are the most helpless and it is so easy to just terminate that life.

          • What part of my reply do you not follow? Perhaps the fact that less than 5% of abortions are because of possible fetal health problems? Although abortions are legal here I don’t have to like the selfish no good reasons most women abort a viable unborn human. Reasons like, I’m too young, can’t afford it, it will make me fat, it’s not a convenient time, etc.

            Is it ethically wrong (evil) to abort a viable unborn human for no good reason?

            – Good is a broad concept but it typically deals with an association with life, charity, continuity, happiness, love and justice.

            – Evil is typically associated with conscious and deliberate wrongdoing, discrimination designed to harm others (even the as yet, unborn), humiliation of people designed to diminish their psychological needs and dignity, destructiveness, and acts of unnecessary and/or indiscriminate violence.

            These basic ideas of a dichotomy have developed so that today the dilemma of the human condition is that humans have the capacity to perform both good and evil activities.

            The nature of being good has been given many treatments; one is that the good is based on the natural love, bonding, and affection that begins at the earliest stages of personal development; another is that goodness is a product of knowing truth. Differing views also exist as to why evil might arise. Many religious and philosophical traditions claim that evil behavior is an aberration that results from the imperfect human condition (e.g. “The Fall of Man”). Sometimes, evil is attributed to the existence of free will and human agency. Some argue that evil itself is ultimately based in an ignorance of truth (i.e., human value, sanctity, divinity). A variety of Enlightenment thinkers have alleged the opposite, by suggesting that evil is learned as a consequence of tyrannical social structures.

            Abortion is the practice of killing the weakest and most defenseless among us.

            For illustration purposes, let us assume that the practice of drinking milk was widely considered immoral. Let us further say that the evilness of drinking milk was obvious to everyone, including children. What is the best way for a minority of milk drinkers to get their behavior accepted by the majority? The milk drinkers know that they cannot convince enough people to accept their position by direct argument alone. The only way to get their immoral behavior accepted would be to change the definition of commonly understood words. For example, they might start referring to milk as flavored water. You see, to drink flavored water is not immoral. The pro-abortion activists have foisted on us this same semantic game. They have changed the meaning of the word life. They say that an unborn baby is not alive. It is only a mass of tissue like a tumor. Every child in America knows that this is a lie. They have changed the meaning of murder and killing. They say performing an abortion is not the same as killing a child. They refer to the unborn child as a fetus. Fetus is a perfectly good Latin word for fruitful or bringing forth. However, it sounds inhuman to our ears. They even changed the name of their movement from pro-abortion to pro-choice. You see it is widely believed in this country that individuals should be free to make their own choices. The name pro-choice gives the evil abortion movement an aura of American liberty and apple pie. Slavery supporters played the same semantic games in their own time. They said that a slave was not a human like everyone else. He was only property. Property can be acquired and even destroyed, at the convenience of the owner. In the same way, a slave could be bought, sold, or killed. Nazis also played the same semantic games. They said that Jews were inferior humans. This enabled them to carry out the holocaust while hidden in the darkness of the concentration camps.

            Quod erat demonstrandum? Indeed, the fact no-good-reason abortions are evil.

          • Thanks for clearing that up. If the motivations of the person choosing to have the abortion are a factor and there are goods to be balanced, then the statistics are relevant.

  3. Wait a minute – are you saying there is a likelihood of higher suicide overall in a society that allows abortion, or that there are higher numbers of suicides in women that have had abortions?

    I beg to differ, by the way. While poverty itself is not solved by abortion, a woman’s ability to space her children absolutely contributes to the well being of herself and her family. Lots of contraception fails. It’s built into the nature of the thing, unfortunately. You can be incredibly vigilant and still something happens. I knew a woman who got pregnant despite the fact she was using contraception AND she was breast feeding, which in itself a form of contraception. (She was happily married and a mother of four children already. She aborted the foetus, by the way, determining that she was not physically capable of rearing yet another baby while still recovering physically from the previous pregnancy.) What’s a “dangerous day” by the way? Are you referring to the notorious rhythm method? Notorious because it’s fail rate is so high?

    The ‘evidence’ of post abortion trauma is very poor, by the way, and in part determined by pre-existing emotional conditions and also cultural pressures. A comparison of Russian and American women found that less than 9% of Russian women had much thought about the abortion afterwards – but then, in Russia abortion was used as a form of contraception for a long time (not a good thing, obviously).

    • I meant that following the current research women who went through abortion are more likely to commit suicide. Thus a society which permit women to kill their foetus, is not better of, in this respect to that which does not. See: Gissler, Mika, Hemminki, Elina, & Lonnqvist, Jouko (1996). Suicides after pregnancy in Finland, 1987–94: register linkage study. British Medical Journal, 313, 1341–1344.

      Even if the evidence of post-abortion physical and psychological issues are poor, it is a reality that numerous books are written to help women post-abortion. Numerous books are being written to address this issue show its’ reality.

      I agree with you that one can be incredibly vigilant but if that person was truly careful, she should avoid intercourse altogether if she does not wish to be pregnant.

      I too have friends who had abortion. They know how deeply I love them and when sharing my position, I begin with clearly and openly explain how in the context of love, and only in love can we talk about this important issue.

      Thank you for your wonderful input.

  4. It is highly unlikely there will ever be total harmony reached on this incredibly sensitive subject. There hasn’t been consensus so far.
    As it stands, the only practical answer,(where abortion is legal) places the decision with women which, all things considered, currently makes the best of a very difficult situation.
    Where more energy should be expended is on education and prevention to the point where science is able to provide women and men with the ability/option to safely ‘switch off’ their reproductive capability until such time as a child is truly wanted.
    I realise this will still come into conflict with Catholic Dogma especially , but that is another issue altogether.

  5. The trouble with the analogy is that it assumes knowledge – a bigger problem than its treatment of conflicts of rights or permissive vs. active harm. We know that the violinist is unconscious and will recover. In reality, we are not so lucky. We are stuck with Bayesian decision making and its discontents, sometimes despite what anyone thinks about the moral status of the fetus.

    • You are very right Keith. That is why I think the most persuasive case should be less ad hoc. It is for this reasons that I champion a case which starts with what we all agree about general wrongness of killing you or I. It is after knowing what is generally wrong about kill us could we ask if that reason applies to our early development in our mothers womb.

  6. Very interesting and well argued essay. I’m sorry that after reasoning so well you fall into careless arguments like “carelessly had intercourse”. Lots of people have intercourse and are very ‘careful’ about it, both inside and outside of marriage. But a bout of gastritis will cause the pill to fail, condoms break, spermicides aren’t infallible etc. A friend of mine was happily married and she had an abortion – a very high percentage of abortions are from married women, so wagging the finger at teenage girls doesn’t really grapple with the issue. The above commenter is right – the logical reasoning is very interesting and entertaining inside academia; outside, in the world we live in, people are grappling not with violinists, but with poverty, a collapse of opportunity, inability to care effectively for multiple children, and so on. Societies which allow women to safely control their own reproduction consistently show better outcomes for women and children overall, then societies which don’t.

    • Thank you for your comment. I believe you are correct that I carelessly said “carelessly had intercourse” on my comment without further explaining. What I meant is what Warren explained that “she could have remained chaste, or taken her pills more faithfully, or abstained on dangerous days, and so on.”

      What Warren is saying is that failed pills, condoms break, infallibility of spermicides could be avoided. I am sorry if it looked like I was wagging my finger at teenage girls. I did not meant it to be seen that way.

      I admitted that inside academia philosophical reasons are entertaining. I would love that it would be more than entertaining and be practical. It is sad that critical thinking is a dying art in our daily lives and left only to the academia.

      Poverty, inability to care effectively for multiple children is not solved by abortion. It is not true that a better society is that which allow women to safely kill their unwanted foetuses because in that society the likelihood of suicide is greater when a pregnancy is aborted(Jansson 1965, Gissler, Hemminki, & Lonnqvist 1996), many, not all, women are reported to have physical and psychological difficulties post-abortions. This is evidently true by a great number of books written to help women after abortion and support groups for those who have gone through abortion. So I doubt, given contemporary researches, that you are correct here.

  7. Perhaps it’s too easy to look at abortion as a philosophical debate. It certainly isn’t very helpful to the average barely literate teenage girl who finds herself pregnant with a baby she never wanted and doesn’t know how to care for. I always wonder why the people who are against abortion don’t make more of an effort to care for these girls and their babies, instead of demanding they carry them to term and meanwhile looking down on them or turning away from them. Or is the whole debate just about being (morally) right and not so much about suffering human beings?

    • Your concern is true and heavy to respond. It is true that philosophical debate is certainly not very helpful to an average pregnant teenage girl. My hope is that even though she never wanted and doesn’t know how to care for it but carelessly had intercourse, she should know that generally there are not only no good ethical reasons for killing her unwanted being inside of her but also there are good ethical reasons for keeping her unwanted being. Abortion is not a solution. There are other solutions. It is my hope that the society will help these teenagers care for their babies.

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